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Conducting needs analyses

wish

Needs analyses depend on our learners already knowing, or our ability to discover, their needs for English language training.  There a number of ways of going about conducting a needs analysis but before we look at them, let's get the trees out of the way of the wood.  Which of the following do you think are true?  Click here when you have an answer.
Needs analysis:

  1. is different from testing
  2. always includes some form of diagnostic testing
  3. should include some form of assessment of learning style
  4. refers to people's need for the language only
  5. can be conducted without consulting the learner(s)
  6. is a straightforward process involving canvassing our students' views
  7. must always be done before a course is planned
psychology

A little psychology

The usual way of conducting a needs analysis is some form of questioning.  However, even simple questions such as What area of English is most important to you? are not as simple and may not be as useful as they look.
Think for a moment about why this might be the case and then click here for some commentary.

conduct

Conducting a needs analysis

Before we start a needs analysis we need to do one on ourselves:

  1. What do we want to know?
  2. How are we going to discover it?

What

There is a wide range of things that we might want to know, of course.  Among them are:

setting
in what settings (work, school, university, social encounters, with native speakers, dealing with officialdom etc.) does the subject need to use English?
skills
do the learners need to deploy all four skills or are some of them more important than others?
sub-skills
of the important ones, are there particular subskills (such as writing e-mails, giving oral presentations etc.) that the learners need?
accuracy levels
is it important that the learners focus on producing accurate language or is basic communicative competence the aim?
functions
are there specific functions (such as asking for permission, inviting, offering, declining etc.) which are particularly important in the setting described?
notions
are there particular notions (such as arrangement of objects, degree, motion etc.) which the learners need to be able to handle successfully?
registers
are there particular registers (academia, engineering, the military, air transport, tourism etc.) in which the learners will have to use English and will need the lexical and structural means to do so?
learning styles
are there particularly common learning styles in the group?  See the guide to learning styles for ways of gathering these data.  If you do gather this information, what are you going to do with it and do you trust it?

You may have thought of others.  Too often, as soon as we start to construct a needs analysis, what we need to know becomes clear.  It should, of course, be clear before we start.

Clearly, the nature of the course will determine what data we want to gather.  It may be quite narrowly focused if, e.g. we are dealing with an ESP (English for Special Purposes) course such as one targeted at a particular register and set of skills, or an EAP (English for Academic Purposes) in which we also know the register and the skills people need (essay writing, seminar presentations etc.).
If, on the other hand, we are planning a General English course (sometimes called ENAP, English for No Apparent Purpose), we may need to gather much wider data concerning the learners' views of their own strengths, weaknesses and needs.

How

There are really only two main ways:

  1. On paper: questionnaires, written prose responses from learners and so on.
  2. Face-to-face: interviews, focus groups, discussions etc.

Both of these have pros and cons:

In writing Face-to-face
For Against For Against
can be cheaply administered at a distance is impersonal and often not monitored is personal and can be carefully monitored may be expensive in terms of time and travel
is fixed and reliable: everyone answers the same questions is inflexible: later questions can't be premised on earlier responses is flexible and can be altered to suit responses received becomes unreliable with too much alteration
can be carefully constructed and designed errors in the questions cannot be eradicated can be altered easily if a question is flawed relies on a subjective judgement of what is said
results can be carefully, statistically analysed little data concerning strength of respondents' feelings judgement about strength of feelings can be made it is difficult reliably to collate and analyse results

It is possible in some circumstances to use both approaches and that can avoid the disadvantages of either.

Constructing questionnaires

Whichever approach is used (and the most common is a written questionnaire) the same considerations apply to how questions are constructed.  On this depends absolutely the quality of the data we can gather.

There are a number of key considerations.

Design

Questionnaires are an indirect method of collecting data; they are substitutes for face-to-face interaction with respondents.
(Lee, 2005:760)

A matrix

This is a popular and efficient way of designing a questionnaire.  For example

Tick one box for each question only.

  Not important Fairly important Important Very important
Speaking        
Listening        
Reading        
Writing        
Learning new words        
Grammar        
Working in pairs        

Note that this matrix has an even number of response possibilities.  That stops people always picking the middle one.
The disadvantage is that all questions have to be phrased in a way that makes the responses appropriate.  You can't ask Do you enjoy ...?

Closed questions

There are three sorts:

  1. Alternate response questions such as:
    Put a tick by your choice:
    I enjoy working with a partner: Yes ___ No ___
    Homework is helpful: True ___ False ___
  2. Multiple-choice items.  The matrix above is an example but all the choices are the same.  If you want different possibilities for the responses, you need to re-format the questionnaire to allow this.  That means having a series of questions with different possible responses for each.  It's flexible and precise but imposes more of a strain on the respondents.
    If you want to make sure the response possibilities are truly random, put them in alphabetical order.
  3. Scales
    In these questions, respondents must order a number of items in terms of, say, importance or enjoyability.  For example
    Number the following.  1 = the least important.  10 = the most important
    No Activity or skill
      Speaking with a partner
      Pronunciation practice
      Having lots of homework
      Studying grammar
      Learning the words I need for work
      Improving my writing
    etc.  

Open questions

With smaller groups it is practical to use open-ended questions which allow for unconstrained responses.  They have the advantage that the respondent can be much more precise about the answer.  The disadvantage is that the results are much harder to analyse statistically and may require reliability-reducing interpretation.
For example
Please write your answers or finish the sentences in the left-hand column.

No Questions or sentence to finish  Answer or sentence completion 
1 Where do you use your English mostly?  
2 Which is your strongest skill in English?  
3 In ten years' time I want to be using my English for ...  
4 The thing I most like about learning English is ...  
etc.    

Open- vs. closed-questions

Here's a summary of the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of question (from Lee, 2005:769).

Question Type Advantages Limitations
Closed-ended Easier and quicker to answer
More likely to get answers about sensitive topics
Easier to code and analyse statistically
Easier to compare different respondents’ answers
Easier to replicate
Frustration without desired answer
Confusing if many response choices are offered
Misinterpretation of a question without notice
Simplistic responses to complex issues
Blurred distinctions between respondents’ answers
Open-ended Opportunity for respondents to give their opinion
Unanticipated findings to be discovered
Adequate for complex issues
Creativity, self-expression, and richness of detail are permitted
Respondents’ logic, thinking processes, and frames of reference are revealed
Different degrees of detail and irrelevance in answers
Difficulty with response coding
Difficulty with comparison and statistical analysis
A greater amount of respondent time, thought, and effort is necessary
Requires space for answers

Analysis

However you construct the test, you will need to analyse the results somehow.  There are two things to remember even if your maths isn't too good.

  1. Convert language to numbers.  For example, if you have a Not important / Fairly important / Important / Very important scale, assign 0 to Not important up to 4 for Important.  That way, it's easy to construct a graph or other kind of visual representation like a pie chart.
  2. Understand the difference between Mean and Mode.  For example
    The numbers are 2, 4, 3, 4, 2, 4, 4, 3, 4, 3
    The mean is the average: 3.3 (i.e., the total of all the numbers divided by 10 (the number of responses))
    The mode is 4 (i.e., the most common response)
    These tell you different things.  The mean gives you a way to see how the hypothetically typical learner responded (although, in fact, nobody scored anything as 3.3).  The mode tells you how popular a response was to each item (how people really voted).

Testing

Now that you have carried out a needs analysis, it is logical to go to the next step and find out how good the learners already are at the target language systems and skills which have emerged.  To do that, you'll need a valid diagnostic test.  Go to the guide to testing and evaluation to find out how to make one.



Related guides
testing and evaluation the obvious place to go
click here for an example of a basic needs analysis form in PDF format
learning-styles for more on what they are and the problems with the theories


Reference:
Lee, S H, 2005, Constructing Effective Questionnaires. Available from http://www.davidlewisphd.com/courses/EDD8006/fall11/2006-Lee.pdf